It’s not often that the opening of a health food store makes headlines in a national fashion publication. But breaking new ground is the lifeblood of the Cullen family of King Kullen supermarket fame. So when the Cullens opened the first Wild By Nature Market—complete with a vast personal care section—in 1994 in the upscale Long Island, N.Y., suburb of East Setauket, it was no surprise that Women’s Wear Daily took notice. The flattering article, “Beauty Finds a Home in Health Food Market,” noted that “Wild By Nature store executives hope to build customer loyalty by stocking natural brands that are not widely available.”
At a time when mainstream supermarkets had scaled back on health and beauty products, and small health food stores were unlikely to give much space to items like lead-free lipstick and organic shampoo, the inaugural Wild By Nature bucked the trend, devoting ample square footage, elegant decor and a dedicated staff to a category founders predicted to be a logical extension to the emerging natural and organic food craze.
Although Carol Corcoran, Wild By Nature’s personal care and supplements buyer, won’t provide specific sales figures, press reports indicate that during the store’s first year, health and beauty items amounted to roughly 8 percent of overall sales. Meanwhile, the category represented only about 2 percent of sales at traditional supermarkets.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the Wild By Nature strategy continues to pay off. “Personal care remains huge for us and is growing,” Corcoran says. “It draws customers in and once they look around, they end up shopping the rest of the store.”
A history of firsts
Personal care is only one example of the Cullen family’s long history of grocery innovation. On Aug. 4, 1930, company patriarch Michael Cullen rented a vacant garage in Queens, N.Y., and opened what is widely considered the first-ever true supermarket: a low-cost, high-volume store combining dry goods, meat, produce and dairy under one roof. In all, Long Island has 52 King Kullens, with revenues of roughly $940 million, according to Supermarket News.
Sixty-six years later, Cullen’s granddaughter, Dana Conklin, pegged natural and organic products as the next big thing, and launched Wild By Nature in Setauket. The store was Long Island’s first full-service natural foods supermarket.
In 2008, the fourth Wild By Nature opened in Oceanside, N.Y., and became the first building in the state to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest honor: LEED Gold Certification. The bright 18,000-square-foot space features recycled steel, concrete and tile; low-volatile organic compound woods and paints; dual-flush toilets; energy-efficient cooling and heating systems; and skylights that bathe the store in natural light.
Along with its organic produce and meats, dry goods and sustainably harvested floral items, the Oceanside store features a fresh sushi bar, café and juice bar. At the heart of the store rests the health and personal care department, including beauty merchandise, dietary supplements, tote bags made of recycled plastic bottles or newspaper, clothes made with organic cotton and a build-your-own spa section with candles, essential oils and feng shui charms.
“Personal care is not just about shampoos and soaps and skin care anymore,” Corcoran says.
Finger on the pulse
Corcoran says the company’s success has always been rooted in its ability to track trends and evolve accordingly. In personal care, this strategy is particularly critical.
“There are new products coming out on a daily basis, and to survive, you really have to keep up on what is up and coming,” Corcoran says, noting that she often sees a flood of consumer requests when Oprah or Dr. Oz recommend a personal care product on air.
She doesn’t have time to tune into Oprah’s show, but she scours the Internet and keeps in close contact with floor managers to track what consumers are asking for.
What’s hot today? In addition to personal care products free of parabens, synthetic fragrances, petroleum and other artificial ingredients, more customers are now asking for U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic, cruelty-free and local items. Although the company has not adopted a personal care standards policy, “we are becoming much more strict about what we carry,” Corcoran says, noting that she prefers to stock products with recycled packaging.
Other “huge” sellers include antiaging skin treatments, beauty-from-the-inside-out supplements and all-natural makeup. The store recently added Nature’s Way’s Hydraplenish supplement and topical serum, both with hyaluronic acid; Bluebonnet’s Age-less Skin Formula, a dietary supplement with vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid; and New Chapter’s Tropical Tamanu face serum. Corcoran also boosted the store’s supply of supplements, topicals and juices containing antioxidants such as açaí, pomegranate, goji, noni and mangosteen fruits, and resveratrol. MyChelle Dermaceuticals and Larenim all-natural mineral makeup are new lines in the personal care section.
In addition to constantly adding new products, Corcoran and her store managers host frequent in-store demos, such as a color analysis by Gabriel Cosmetics or a mini-makeover by Dr. Hauschka. They make a point of rotating their endcap displays and creatively pairing products. For example, a summer display might include a sunless tanner, lip balm, bright nail polish and a recycled handbag for toting it all to the beach.
Because personal care products don’t necessarily sell themselves, Wild By Nature customers can always find a well-trained staff person to answer questions and offer customer samples. Outside the store, shoppers can visit Wild By Nature’s Facebook page for product profiles and information on daily sales and demos, along with in-store lecture details and price cuts.
What’s next for a retailer with 80-plus years of success behind it? That depends on the customers, Corcoran says. “We’ll continue to stay on top of what people want.”